Goya by Robert Hughes. Alfred A. Knopf. 429 pages $40.00
Francisco Goya: A Life by Evan S. Connell. Counterpoint. 246 pages. $26.00
Old Man Goya by Julia Blackburn. Vintage. 241 pages. $13.00
The Spanish master Francisco de Goya had a genius for nightmares, and two of his most disturbing are in "Disasters of War," a remarkable series of etchings that wouldn’t be printed until 40 years after his death. In one, a man who is either dead or about to be is impaled on a tree; his arms have been severed, and a branch appears to have been rammed through his ass and out between his shoulder blades. There's a tree of death in the other picture, too, with bodies and body parts hanging from a distended branch. The first thing you notice is a severed head that looks as if it’s growing from the limb; a bloody arm hangs next to it, and next to that is a headless, armless torso. Next are two other dead bodies, one upright and slumping, the other hanging by its feet and dragging on the ground.
Seeing the reproductions, the first thing that sprang to mind were Eliot’s great lines from The Waste Land: "…That corpse you planted last year in your garden/Has it begun to sprout?" The difference is that Goya wasnt just being poetic. In her 2001 Old Man Goya, Julia Blackburn -- who also seems to have Eliot's imagery in her head -- describes Spain in 1804, awash with yellow fever, floods and an on-going war with Napoleonic France: "In the neglected fields and the desolate countryside, the arms and legs of the dead could be seen bursting out of their shallow graves as if they were a crop that had been planted as seeds in the autumn and was now sprouting into life." People in small towns were taking revenge upon the invading French: "They castrated the soldiers who had raped their women and once they had stripped a carcass of its covering of clothes they punished it further by hacking off its limbs. Mutilated bodies were hung among the branches, as a warning to others." The art critic Robert Hughes -- who recently published his own Goya biography, as did the novelist Evan S. Connell -- calls "Disasters of War" series "the true ancestors of all great visual war reportage." Goya didn't see everything he depicted, Hughes says; he didn’t even see the poor peasant shot by a firing squad in his immortal canvas "Third of May." He was "the artist who invented a kind of illusion in the service of truth,” Hughes writes, "the illusion of being there when dreadful things happen." In life, as in war, the real skirts the surreal, which in some ways seems to sum up the artist himself.
In fact, it seems that you could almost divide up the artist's life between dream and reality; or, more specifically, between the artist he was up to the mysterious illness that left him stone deaf at the age of 46, and the wildly imaginative one he became.
Before: son of a peasant farmer in rural Zaragoza, he shows early artistic promise, and finds work as a young man with Anton Raphael Mengs, court painter to the throne of Carlos III. In a devotedly backward culture ruled by the Catholic Church – with the Inquisition still dragging on after 500 years – he turns out skillful, detailed, colorful and conventional official art: tapestries, portraits and cartoons for palaces and churches. As Evan Connell points out, Goya started out the way the 19th Century Pre-Raphaelites wound up, by showing nothing ugly. Rejected for the post of court painter following Mengs' death, he wins an appointment to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in San Fernando on the basis of a lame crucifixion picture. He gets married and has scads of children, only one of whom lives to adulthood.
After: Living in a world of silence, the raw, fantastic imagination only hinted at in his earlier works erupts. Spurred in part by the Inquisition tortures and Spain's bloody wars with France, he seems bent on exorcising one fantastic fever dream after the next: midnight meetings of witches and demons, giants towering over the land, whores roasting naked men on spits, donkeys commingling with men, the parts and pieces of dead bodies littering the countryside, a hopeless peasant gunned down by soldiers, scenes of life in a madhouse – scenes in a world where, to quote the title of his famous etching, the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
"Goya is throbbing in everything around me," a young Eugene Delacroix once wrote in his journal – a response shared by his latest scribes. For Blackburn and Hughes, particularly, he’s a monkey on their backs; an enigma whose life never quite explains his art and, more than that, a troubling spirit who is staring straight into their souls. Evan Connell, while he reveals things about his subject the others don’t, is a good deal more detached and less absorbing.
Blackburn's book, now out in paperback, was occasioned by the impending death of the author's mother, who had also been a painter. Blackburn goes to the effort of plugging her ears with wax to approximate Goya's deafness, and her work is a captivating, intimate and sometimes overreaching account of one artist trying – through research, travel, and force of imagination –to immerse herself into the life of another. Blackburn tries to see Goya, tries to feel his spirit at a bullfight, to hear him in the enigmatic captions to the caprichos – which are "a way of talking to himself and anyone else who wanted to hear what an old deaf man had to say."
Blackburn floats several theories that are taken up her recent successors: that Goya's unexplained illness may have been the result of lead poisoning from the gallons of paint he used, and that his paintings reflect deafness in both spatial and physical terms. She notices the thickness of the walls, the sheer sense of brutal silence that the paintings communicate to a viewer, as well as the noise: "a great hollow booming reverberation like a mixture of thunder and human voices."
In his own book on Goya, Robert Hughes says that it took an auto accident to unblock his thoughts on the artist, who had been obsessing him for years. Laid up in the hospital, with a prosthetic brace screwed into his leg, he dreams of Goya mocking him. "Not only could I not do the job; my subject knew it and found my inability hysterically funny. There was only one way out of this humiliating bind, and that was to crash through."
It worked; the book is extraordinary. Hughes writes the way he talks, with the same conversational elegance he brought to his great PBS series of a few years ago, "American Visions"; you can even hear his bolts of joy and his disdainful little huffs. Hughes can not only explain in captivating detail the political, social and historic milieu of Goya’s world, but also his craft: the hard process of etching, for example, and Goya’s skill at mastering it.
More than that, he is a great viewer. Looking at Goya's "Picnic on the Bank of the Manzanares," he writes of how the fetching orange-seller "is pointing offstage in a fairly unmistakable gesture of invitation: buy my oranges, says this maja, and you get something else to peel, though not necessarily for free." In Goya's famous portrait of the son of the count of Altamira, a pretty little boy who is decked out in finery has a bird on a string, while a pair of cats watch nearby, waiting to strike. Hughes sees here a sly comment on the class system: "The price of privilege is unremitting tension, for birds as well as people." He points out how in Goya’s famous etching of "Sleep of Reason," where a slumbering artist is haunted by demonic bats and birds, an owl becomes a symbol not of wisdom but of stupidity, offering the sleeping painter "an artist’s chalk in a holder -- the better to draw incorrect and misleading interpretations with." With Goya's painting ''Bandit Stripping a Woman,'' Hughes sees in the averted face of a rape victim the artist's own comment on the complicity of the viewer: "And from whom is her face hidden? You. Whose gaze does she fear? Yours. She does not want you to see. She is stricken by shame at your gaze." In Goya's "Dead Turkey," he sees a still life that is truly still: "Perhaps the world is full of dead turkeys, but not one of them could be deader than Goya’s. It may not stimulate appetite, but there is no doubt that it promotes as much sympathy as any other corpse in art." goya is similarly attuned to the vulnerability of the body, and Hughes is right there with him. Hughes' own damaged leg can't be far from his thoughts when he's looking at Goya's depiction of a matdor gored through the thigh: "A horn that pierces the inner thigh, angling upwards and exiting through the lower buttock, is almost certain to sever the deep femoral artery, causing a fatal loss of blood that no tourniquet can stem."
The novelist Evan S. Connell has a few interesting things to say about Goya, namely involving another old mystery of Goya's: the true identity of his famous Naked Maja, who may or may not be the Duchess of Alba, who may or may not have had an affair with the painter. Connell says that an X-ray examination, apparently not known to Hughes, shows that the face has been repainted to give the model a more generic look. He also spends rather more time with Goya's family life than Hughes and raises -- and just as quickly retracts -- the possibility that Goya was bisexual. Connell writes with prickly intelligence and a mostly pristine amusement, and the best you can say about reading him is that he fills in the picture a little more. But reading him after you read Hughes is a real comedown. Where Hughes is so riveting on the art and so richly detailed and alive regarding all the complex personalities involved in Goya's world, Connell is either patchy or bland. He fears getting too close to his subject, which doesn't bother Hughes at all. Hughes tears through Goya's life and art like a ball of fire: a great teacher delivering a world-class course on a great artist.